After hearing an advance stream of Stop Time, I asked our contributor, Jon Regen, to recount how his new album came to be, and what it was like to work with producer Mitchell Froom [Tape Op # 10]. I think the direction that Mitchell took the album in was totally appropriate; it's great to hear about his pre-production work and dedication to the project. The album is a joy to listen to. -LC
For a number of years after I made the jump from instrumental jazz artist to singer/songwriter, my albums were mostly melancholy affairs. Misery, it turns out, was quite a capable muse, and I leaned heavily on it for the bulk of my songwriting inspiration (hence song titles like "What Am I Supposed to Do from Here" and "Excuse Me, But It's Not Supposed to End Like This"). But after three albums of heavy breakup material, I knew I was ready for a change in direction. What I didn't know was how far, wide, and interconnected the road would turn out to be.
Following the success of my 2011 album, Revolution (featuring collaborators like Andy Summers, Benmont Tench, and Rob Thomas), I dropped the bulk of my savings on a 1957 Neumann U 47 microphone that originally came from John Lennon's Tittenhurst Park home studio in England. That mic had found its way to famed British producer John Porter (of The Smiths/Ryan Adams/B.B. King fame), who had in turn used it on a slew of albums he produced around the globe. Immediately after purchasing the mic from John in New Orleans, I used it to record the song "Stay," my first co-write with the songwriter Dan Wilson (Semisonic, Adele), about my father's battle with cancer. That song led to me collaborating on an instrumental album with my father's oncologist, the noted meditation expert Dr. Mitchell Gaynor. That album, Change Your Mind, which we recorded in a single night in my tiny New York City apartment, would soar to number one on the Billboard New Age Albums chart (and 67 on Billboard's The Hot 200). It would also validate my decision to temporarily forgo food in order to purchase that glorious, glowing mic. Now I had a vintage microphone and a number one new age album, but I was low in the actual song department. I'd just left an unsatisfying label deal, but had just started a successful personal relationship. Thusly, I had little of my previous impetuses for songwriting close at hand. So I started thinking about things that songwriters like Dan Wilson and Rob Thomas had told me — about their ironclad work ethic and daily song output. I re-read a quote from the paralyzed visual artist Chuck Close that said, "Inspiration is for amateurs." I thought to myself, "You'd better get to work."
New songs were soon taking shape. I wrote "old school" at my Steinway grand on yellow legal pads (my song "Run to Me" started there), and I also combed my iPhone Voice Memo graveyard for any fragments that seemed worthy of finishing. (The songs "Chapter Two" and "Borderline" began in this manner). I also married unfinished lyrics with newly composed music. One song started that way, following an impromptu (and slightly inebriated) jam session I had with the actor Jeremy Irons at a party in London, with me on piano and him playing cello like an upright bass. Later, when I returned to New York, I melded the New Orleans-tinged music from that jam session with a set of lyrics I had written about a guy who watches himself grow older in dismay. Entitled "Stop Time," the song would intrigue Jana Herzen, the president and owner of Motéma Music, enough to offer me a label deal. We would soon settle on a concept — a New Orleans-themed album with multiple guest artists, to be recorded and produced by my mic's former owner, John Porter, in the Crescent City itself. We were off and running... or so I thought.
Just weeks after finalizing the budget for the album, I learned that John Porter had to pull out of the project after he decided to move back to England. Left without a producer, I now wondered what would become of my new set of songs. Soon after, I got an email from someone asking where I had found a particular photo of the producer Mitchell Froom for a profile I had written on him in 2011 for Keyboard Magazine. "Mitchell Froom," I thought. "Now there's an idea." I was immediately reminded of how many of the songs Mitchell produced that had been the soundtrack of my musical youth — Crowded House's "Don't Dream It's Over," Paul McCartney's "My Brave Face," Bonnie Raitt's "One Belief Away," and on, and on. Mitchell had even produced my former employer, "Little" Jimmy Scott, for his 1995 album Dream. A pattern was beginning to develop. I emailed Mitchell and a dialogue began. Soon after we were making plans to record together.
Mitchell was steadfast in his determination to strip things down. "Even though these are pop songs, you play piano and sing with a swing, like Frank Sinatra," he told me. "Why would you want to clutter that all up with endless background vocals and instrumental overdubs? The more you stick on top of your voice, the smaller you become." In fact, some of the songs I had originally envisioned as full-on band tracks, Mitchell fought to have cut as piano and vocals alone. But how could I argue with him? This was the guy whose Hammond organ solo on "Don't Dream It's Over" was still stuck in my brain like an ice pick three decades later. "This album should be about your voice, your piano playing, and your songs," he told me. "I want to put you with a rhythm section that sounds like your road band." I couldn't argue with his choice of sidemen either, which consisted of bassist Davey Faragher and drummer Pete Thomas from Elvis Costello's Impostors (along with Val McCallum on guitar and Don Heffington on congas on selected tracks). Recording would start in September of 2014, just weeks after I would return from playing 36 straight shows across Europe. I would be spending much of my downtime on the road continuing to write for the album, following Mitchell's advice of, "Keep writing until you think you're done!" One of my favorite songs on the album, "These Are the Days," showed up just before we began recording. In fact, half of the album would take shape after Mitchell and I started working together.
Mitchell had me record all of the prospective tunes for the album as piano/vocal demos to a click into Pro Tools so he could immediately get started on pre-production. Working out of my home studio in NYC, I used two AKG C414 B-ULS microphones on my Steinway grand piano, routed into the mic pres on my Apogee Symphony. Vocals would be recorded with my Neumann U 47 into a Universal Audio 6176, and also routed into the Apogee Symphony. As luck would have it, the vocals and Wurlitzer electric piano I recorded for the demo of my song "Annie" would turn out so well that we would use them on the final album take. We would also use the outro piano solo from my demo of the song "Morning Papers" on the album cut of that song.
By the time I got to Los Angeles to start recording at Mitchell's personal studio in September of 2014, Mitchell knew exactly what he wanted on each of the album's ten songs.
From bass lines and drum grooves, to chord substitutions, to keyboard and percussion overdubs, he had worked out every last detail of each song so as to expedite the recording process. Davey Faragher and Pete Thomas had also heard and worked on all of the songs beforehand, so everyone was on the same page when the virtual tape started rolling. Mitchell's longtime engineer, David Boucher [Tape Op # 91], would handle the recording duties, capturing the band live with an Amek Media 51 console, an Apogee Symphony converter, and a slew of vintage and modern outboard gear feeding into Pro Tools. My Neumann U 47 had also made the cross-country trip with me; it was hung upside down above the piano keyboard, handling my vocals for each of the album's tracks.
Recording went fast, a testament to how well-prepared everyone was. Basic tracking was completed in six days, with the core band of me on piano and vocals, Davey Faragher on bass, and Pete Thomas on drums, recording complete live takes. Another few days were set aside for guitar, keyboard, and percussion overdubs. It was a thrill to watch these new songs — some of which had been just fragments of ideas a few weeks earlier, spring to life, buoyed by the elastic accompaniment of Davey and Pete. Equally as exciting was getting a chance to watch Mitchell lay meticulously sculpted keyboard overdubs on top of the songs — like the Hammond B3 organ on "I Will Wait," the Hohner Pianet/Clavinet Duo on "Borderline," a shimmering Yamaha CP-60 electric grand part on "Run to Me," and a wild symphony of Teenage Engineering OP-1 synth tracks on "Home Again." After recording was completed, David Boucher mixed the album in approximately ten days. Not three weeks after the process began, Mitchell, his wife (acclaimed singer/songwriter) Vonda Shepard, David, myself, and Motéma's Jana Herzen were camped out around the Amek console, celebrating the album's completion. From start to finish, the recording took 20 days. Mastering would follow soon after, with Roger Seibel at SAE Mastering in Phoenix, Arizona.
There's a moment towards the end of making an album where you realize what a particular set of songs is about. For me, this album is about hope and home — savoring the here and now. From the romantic refrain of "I Will Wait," to the reassuring chorus of "Run to Me," to the realization in "Morning Papers" that what you already have is better than what you once pined for, the album came together as one piece. When I was deciding on an album title, I chose Stop Time because it was the song that started this whole wild ride in the first place. And maybe if we all could stop time once in a while, we would realize how much there already is to celebrate. There's a line in the last song on the album, "These Are the Days," that says, "These little earthquakes are what hold us all together." I think it sums up the journey perfectly for me. It took a series of seemingly unrelated happenstances to make this album a reality. A vintage microphone, a song for my father, a new love interest (who would soon become my wife), a stack of legal pads, a jam session with Jeremy Irons, and an ace producer with a plan. Sometimes, when you least expect it, everything does come together. That is, if you work your ass off in the meantime!